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Detroit Lions training camp: Aerial acrobatics in Motor City

Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Calvin Johnson headlines a potent passing offense, but the Detroit Lions face major concerns in pass defense.

NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Chad Reuter details his visit with the Detroit Lions. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)

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Instead of heading to a nearby college campus, the Lions simply walk out the back door of their Allen Park team facility (located about 15 minutes west of downtown Detroit's Ford Field) to hold training camp. Though the 1,500 fans in attendance make up the smallest camp audience in the NFC North, fans of all ages enjoyed a gorgeous Wednesday morning practice.

OBSERVATION DECK

1. Jim Schwartz is in midseason form. The Lions' fiery coach is one of the league's more vocal coaches on the practice field. Wednesday's practice was not exceptionally clean, so halfway through the session, he actually called for a team huddle and used a firm hand to try to get his players to focus. With the new CBA cutting down on training camp practices, Schwartz knows each one is important; one of his many jobs is to remind his team of that fact. His words weren't always harsh, however, as he also coached up his squad on something fans don't often see teams work on during open practices: last-second plays where opponents are in striking distance of the end zone. That combination of intensity and coaching savvy makes it easy to see why players like him and coaches respect him.

2. "Safety" is apparently a misnomer. Before Wednesday's practice, it was announced that starting free safety Louis Delmas had undergone surgery on his left knee after missing a week of practice (and five games last season with surgery on his right knee). The timetable for his return is unknown. Strong safety Amari Spievey (who dropped a red-zone interception in practice) is still looking to prove himself as Delmas' partner in the back end. Veterans Erik Coleman and Sean Jones could take advantage of Delmas' injury and Spievey's uncertainty. Coleman broke up a pass in the end zone Wednesday, bringing cheers from fans and fellow defenders, but he hasn't stayed healthy the past couple of seasons. And while Jones started every game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in each of the past two seasons, teams didn't exactly line up to sign him as a free agent.

3. Spread 'em out, open 'em up. On the other hand, the Lions' passing offense should be one of the league's most potent. Cannon-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford has a gaggle of dangerous weapons at his disposal. Calvin Johnson still looks like a physical mismatch for any opposing cornerback (as veteran CB Alphonso Smith found out when "Megatron" went over the top of him for one score). Nate Burleson is a solid No. 2 who made a nice one-handed catch on a pass thrown behind him Wednesday. And Titus Young showcased the quickness that spurred the Lions to take him in the second round of the 2011 draft. On Wednesday, Detroit moved Johnson and Burleson inside and Young outside on some plays, giving defenses yet another look. Ryan Broyles spent the day on the sideline in a baseball cap, still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered as an Oklahoma Sooner last November. But expect the second-round pick to jump into the fray this season, as well. For the time being, veteran Stefan Logan will use his elusiveness in the slot. Add in a solid tight end tandem of Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, and the Lions should again have one of the top half-dozen offenses in the league.

4. The team must find a healthy running back. Even considering the explosiveness of the aerial attack, the Lions need a back capable of carrying the load to compete in a brutal NFC North. Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure are already on the sideline due to concussions and hamstring issues, respectively, while Kevin Smith had his right thigh wrapped in ice after Wednesday's practice, thanks to a relatively minor accidental hit during supposed non-contact work. It's possible the team is being cautious with Best because of the league's new policies dealing with head injuries, but he's had a number of concussions going back to his days at Cal. Leshoure missed all of 2011 with an Achilles injury (and will be serving a two-game suspension for off-field misconduct), and Smith hasn't exactly been reliable over the past couple seasons. That means youngsters Joique Bell (who looks even quicker and stronger than he was at Wayne State University in Michigan), Keiland Williams (a solid all-around back picked up off waivers from the Washington Redskins last offseason) and speedy rookie Stephfon Green from Penn State will get their chances to shine during the preseason.

THE NEW GUYS

Riley Reiff: Detroit's first-round draft pick worked on the left side Wednesday, but has played on both sides during camp, as the team expects him to be a swing tackle behind veterans Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus. The former Iowa Hawkeye didn't give up much ground in team work, widening his base and anchoring in pass protection. He also moved well in the run game. He'll need to tighten up his punch outside so he doesn't overextend, as offensive line coach (and former NFL defensive lineman) George Yarno "explained" to him after a one-on-one rep where he allowed Everette Brown to get the corner against him.

Jacob Lacey/Dwight "Bill" Bentley: The Lions not only have questions at safety, but also at cornerback. To improve their depth at the position, general manager Martin Mayhew brought in a former starter with the Indianapolis Colts in Lacey and used a third-round pick on Dwight "Bill" Bentley from Louisiana-Lafayette. Both will compete with Smith for the starting spot across from Chris Houston. Despite their slight builds (they average 5-foot-10, 180 pounds) Lacey and Bentley have very good foot quickness and don't back down from any receiver. They both lined up outside and in the slot, and Bentley looked confident when trailing Johnson on one crosser, forcing a high incompletion. They'll need all the tenacity they can muster playing against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, as well as the talented receiver groups of the Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals.

Kellen Moore: Given his average arm strength and six-foot, 197-pound build, it wasn't particularly surprising that Moore wasn't drafted, despite being the winningest quarterback in NCAA history. Equally predictable was the methodical way he moved the Lions during practice, hitting receivers running hitches and short outs, and regularly checking down to keep the chains moving instead of testing the secondary deep. He'll need to make more plays downfield against opposing defenses to earn playing time at this level, but his poise and intelligence could earn him the third-string job behind Stafford and veteran Shaun Hill, or at least a practice squad spot.

OVERHEARD

"He's an intelligent quarterback and a great guy, and I congratulate him on getting the starting position. But just because I picked him off in college doesn't mean I can relax. I gotta come out come out and compete."
-- Bentley on Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.

The Lions host the Browns on Friday, marking the first preseason game for both rookies. Bentley intercepted Weeden twice last fall when Louisiana-Lafayette played Oklahoma State and broke up three of the former minor league baseball player's passes in 2010.

EXTRA POINTS

1. The Lions showed some three-man fronts in obvious passing down-and-distances, with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley manning the five-technique spots and Corey Williams lined up in the middle. Both Suh and Fairley used their power to overwhelm tackles, as they can when lined up inside, but they also possess the athleticism to get to the quarterback in that role -- even if the exterior linemen get help from a neighboring guard. I wouldn't expect Schwartz to go away from his four-man front regularly, but it looks like an interesting changeup for which opposing offensive coordinators must prepare.

2. Defensive end Willie Young showed glimpses of pass-rush ability with his three sacks in 2011. With veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch on the sideline with a sleeve on his right knee, Young played a lot of reps with the starters. He used his length and strong hands to regularly swipe away offensive linemen during one-on-one's and team play. Though he obviously couldn't complete plays against his own quarterbacks, he won't be so kind to opposing passers this season.

3. Although Young looked pretty good on this day, the team is very happy that defensive end Cliff Avril ended his holdout by signing a one-year franchise tag tender last weekend. Avril looks to be working his way into playing shape, taking part on most plays to threaten quarterbacks as much as he can in practice. He also showed little rust in terms of instincts and awareness by knocking down multiple screen passes at the line of scrimmage.

4. Undrafted rookie receiver Patrick Edwards started off practice showing nice agility and going up the ladder to grab a high pass over the middle. A couple of drops later in the day tempered coaches' enthusiasm, but look for the ultra-productive receiver from the University of Houston to make an impression during preseason games as a weapon in the passing game and return specialist.

5. Right tackles Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox logged some time with the starting offensive line, as the inconsistent Cherilus sat out a lot of practice before returning late. Both reserves fared well, but their presence with the "1's" probably says more about Cherilus' uneven play than their ascension up the depth chart. Still, it's possible one of them won't have a roster spot with Reiff now in the mix as a swing tackle, and they both played like they knew they had to take advantage of the opportunity.

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6. Kicker Jason Hanson is heading into his 21st season, but you'd never know it watching him boot the ball in practice. He went 24-for-29 on field goals in 2011, and also finished fifth in the league with 45 touchbacks on kickoffs. Don't expect a big drop-off in 2012 because he still gets consistently high trajectory while connecting with a powerful thud.

OUTLOOK

The Lions are a solid football team with one of the league's most dangerous passing offenses and some playmakers on the defensive line. Unfortunately, they're in the same division as Green Bay and Chicago, two teams with as much (or more) talent on both sides of the football. They'll compete for a wild-card spot, but must again be in the league's top five in turnover differential (plus-11 in 2011) and hope their secondary improves. Remember, they gave up 45 points in each of their final two games last season (losses to the Packers and Saints).

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter

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